Doreen Lorenzo Brings Her Design Expertise to the University of Texas
Doreen Lorenzo is a successful leader of global creative firms and has advised Fortune 100 companies on design and innovation issues for decades. In August 2017, she was named Assistant Dean of the newly founded School of Design and Creative Technologies, a collaboration between the Department of Design and Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies.
Previously, Lorenzo served as Director of the Center for Integrated Design at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a co-founder of mobile video insights firm Vidlet, as well as a board member and advisor of several other startups, and a columnist for Fast Co. Design and Medium. A recognized thought leader on business and design issues, she speaks publicly about her signature leadership style and the power of empathy to drive business results.
From 2013 to 2015, Lorenzo was president of Quirky, where she oversaw product development and operations for this fast-growing company. Prior to Quirky she worked at frog design for 16 years, including seven years as president. While president of frog she drove company strategy, oversaw worldwide operations and delivery, and led the iconic design firm to record growth.
Asked for her thoughts on silver linings during the ongoing COVID crisis and within the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in May, Lorenzo replies: “I don’t just have one silver lining. Unrest and trauma bring change and innovation. Change is clearly needed and long overdue and these catastrophic events could have a positive impact on our lives moving forward. We have to encourage and nurture changes to happen. The worst thing we could do is run away from it or pretend change doesn’t need to happen.”
I want to start off with the same question that I asked Danielle Barnes of Austin Design Week in my interview with her last week. What is your most current definition of design? And has that definition changed over the course of your extensive career?
The acknowledgement that design is important to our life has changed but the essence of design is still the same. It is problem solving. The solutions create artifacts but fundamentally, you still need to know: what is the problem I am trying to solve? And who are you solving it for? And is it worth solving?
Back when you were at frog Design, your office on Congress Avenue hosted the Opening Party for what was then called the SXSW Multimedia Festival. What is your favorite (or not-so-favorite) memory from those epic March celebrations?
OMG — Hugh, we had a lot of fun at those early parties. The planning sessions were the best! We had fire dancers, people with cat whiskers and even petting zoos! We did have to shut one down when the fire alarm went off and the police came to close us down (the measure of a successful event no doubt). Those events supported the design community and helped make Austin a destination for design. It was amazing to watch those parties grow in size. The first one maybe had 300 people and by the time we did our last one, there were close to 10,000 people in attendance.
A lot of that frog team from the late 90s have moved on to have very significant impacts within other design and technology firms. Which of these alums are you most proud of?
They are like my children, I am proud of all of them. They have gone on to lead amazing organizations, create thoughtful products and services and work around the world in humanitarian efforts. During this pandemic, there have been several Zoom reunions and I just sit and marvel at how successful they all are.
How is your current role as Assistant Dean at the University of Texas, School of Design and Creative Technologies different (or similar) than some of your other work experiences?
It’s amazingly similar, we are building a community where creative people can learn and thrive — but this time we include faculty, students and the community. The ecosystem is growing and the work is simply amazing. I am so proud of what we have achieved in a very short time.
What kind of students are having the most success in the programs that you are involved with at UT?
Our students are diverse and their varied experiences enhance the program. In general, we want students who are curious, who want to experiment and who love to learn. Their creative skills are very important — but curiosity and an eagerness to learn play a huge role in the program.
Has interacting with UT students given you a different perspective on the future (and the future of technology) than what you had in the private sector?
This generation of students has grown up in a very technologically focused world and they have no fear. They also are aware of the ethics and pitfalls of technology and spend time making sure it is safe and accessible for all.
I know that you have a lot of connections to the world of video games. This already sizable industry has seen some pretty massive growth during the pandemic. How do you see videos games and the video game industry evolving and maturing over the next few years?
The world of video games is not just about games any more. For example the engines behind the games are so powerful they are being used in movies, architecture, medical and oil and gas simulations and even car design. Our students have the opportunity to use their talents beyond just traditional gaming.
What design-related projects or products are you most passionate about at present?
I want to get behind redesigning the whole voting experience. This has just been a mess. Fifty states, fifty different processes, various state laws and even variation in dates. There has to be a better way.
Given your extensive professional experience, what are your thoughts on achieving more gender equality within the technology industry?
I’m simply frustrated that we have to keep talking about it. Women still fall behind in executive and board positions. Their pay is still not equal. It is so disturbing that we have to keep proving ourselves.
Do you feel that gender equality in in technology has improved during your time in the industry — or has it remained stagnant?
Sadly it often feels like two steps forward and three steps back. Women still are negligible in leadership and board roles across the tech industry and pay equity has not been met.
Can good design offer solutions to COVID and systemic racism and other giant societal challenges that we currently have?
Absolutely, but we have to want to do something. Just designing something does not guarantee adoption. We know what to do…so many are just choosing not to.
In addition to your relatively new role at UT, you are on the Board of Directors at the SKU Consumer Products Accelerator. Are you surprised at how strong this city’s CPG scene has become in recent years?
I’m not surprised. SKU has given our creators in CPG a place to go and grow their business. There has always been CPG here, but there wasn’t enough support. SKU has been amazing at bringing together mentors, creators and investors to grow the CPG industry in Austin.
How has the design scene in Austin changed / morphed / evolved over the last 30 years?
First, there wasn’t a design scene in Austin thirty years ago. People would not have pointed to Austin as a creative center. Today, that has all changed. I always say SXSW played a huge role in shining a spotlight on our design capabilities. Now we have hundreds of design organizations and most importantly the University of Texas is at the center of creating the next generation of designers.
How does Austin retain its unique personality as it continues to see massive growth, with much of this growth coming as a result of our vibrant technology scene?
My career is about making change for the better. What I have learned is that making sure the values of any organization, city, company, product have to be well articulated and understood if you want to institute change. Change happens whether you like it or not. As you read these answers, change is happening. If we as a city truly stand behind our values regarding creativity and technology, then we can make sure that we don’t chase those values away. We can keep Austin weird, creative, vibrant and growing. It comes down to taking care of what matters to you.
What does Austin look like / feel like 10 years from now?
It looks the same but different…kind of like you and me. Change is fun!
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.
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